The Transformational Power of Books

"Books are a uniquely portable magic."

My great-grandmother was the Stephen King of children's bedtime stories.

When I was little, she used to tell me stories before I went to sleep. But if you think they were the nice, fluffy Cinderella-type, you, my friend, are wildly mistaken. There were monsters, murderous horses, and all sorts of imaginary things that are definitely not suitable for young children.

The tales may have been terrifying, but they were absolutely captivating. Like Stephen King, she created fictional worlds infused with a sense of right and wrong and good and evil. They were able to transport you to a different dimension and leave you shaking in your pajamas. As King says, "Books are a uniquely portable magic."

Although my great-grandmother's stories never became books (though they would absolutely dominate the horror genre), they were instrumental in developing my love for the art of storytelling. When I learned to read, I realized that even though I was a kid living in Bulgaria, I could peer into the lives of people all over the globe.

As I've gotten older, I've realized that books mean different things to different people. Stephen King believes books teach us how to think, Dolly Parton sees them as a ticket out of poverty, and Matt Haig claims that reading books is a form of therapy.

"[Books] are the most vital, intimate, personal, mind-altering, thought-twisting, friend-giving, empathy-strengthening, thrill-riding, emotional, world-shaking technology we will ever have," Haig says. "And in a world where we are increasingly connected via technology, but disconnected by society, books and stories can be the glue that bonds us."

Similarly, astronaut Scott Kelly says books provided him with a healthy mental escape through bouts of loneliness in the International Space Station. “The quiet and absorption you can find in a physical book — one that doesn’t ping you with notifications or tempt you to open a new tab — is priceless," he says.

When he was on death row for a crime he didn't commit, Anthony Ray Hinton started a book club for fellow inmates to help them experience the power of visualization. Reading helped Hinton transport himself from his prison cell into new, more exciting worlds. While in his cell, he traveled the world, married Halle Berry, had tea with Queen Elizabeth, and won Wimbledon — all in his mind. “I never used my mind for garbage,” he says. “I used it to cope through some lonely days.”

I use books to live different lives. I gravitate toward memoirs and biographies because they immerse me into the mental state of someone whose life unfolded quite differently from mine.

My heart shattered into a million pieces when I read the story of Hinton being arrested and wrongfully charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. His memoir The Sun Does Shine taught me that you can take away someone’s freedom, but their hope, imagination, sense of humor, and spirit can stay intact even after three decades of solitude.

I thought deeply about the fragility of life after reading about Edith Eva Eger's unimaginable experiences as an aspiring 16-year-old ballerina taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in her memoir The Choice. It helped me understand the nature of trauma, anger, resilience, and the power of choosing how we see ourselves.

I marveled at Tara Westover's improbable thirst for knowledge even though she grew up in the mountains of Idaho, isolated from mainstream society. Her memoir Educated made me re-think and alter my own ideas of what we traditionally expect from an in-classroom education.

Books are tools of empathy. The stories inside allow you to live hundreds of different lives, experience a myriad of emotions, and go on an infinite number of adventures. So if you're looking for something to do on this lovely Sunday afternoon, put down the phone and pick up a book.

As King said: “Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent."

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